UPPER KEYS -- An underwater research base off Key Largo completed its first mission under new management last week after being on the brink of closure.
Before Florida International University took over operation of Aquarius Reef Base in January, effectively forestalling its closing, the world's only undersea research station was run by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, which abandoned it due to budget cuts.
The base, located on the ocean floor near Conch Reef about 6 miles offshore, is owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and has a life expectancy of about 10 to 15 more years.
The latest mission, which took place from Sept. 10 to Sept. 14, was dubbed SEATEST II.
Jim Fourqurean, the FIU researcher overseeing the Aquarius project, said he was a bit anxious about the first mission, but deemed it a success.
"There were a couple of hiccups here and there," Fourqurean said, but by most accounts everything went as planned.
NASA astronaut Joe Acaba led the crew and was joined by astronauts Kate Rubins of NASA, Andreas Mogensen of the European Space Agency, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
The crew conducted engineering demonstrations and refined techniques in team communication. Fourqurean said the mission allows astronauts to train on how to explore and retrieve information from asteroids or other planets.
Previous exercises in Aquarius, which allows astronauts to simulate zero-gravity conditions, have supported 16 NASA missions.
"The NASA guys told me this was as smooth as it's ever been," Fourqurean said.
During the mission, the four astronauts and two FIU techs were stationed in the base. On the topside were 10 FIU workers and eight NASA employees, as well as three from Japan's space program and two from Europe.
The mission also streamed live, though without audio, on USTREAM. Feeds are accessible at www.aquarius.fiu.edu.
Aquarius' next mission has already garnered its fair share of worldwide media attention.
Filmmaker and oceanographic explorer Fabien Cousteau will undertake a multimillion-dollar venture this fall -- dubbed "Mission 31" -- to spend 31 days conducting research from the Aquarius.
Initially scheduled for Oct. 1, the mission has been delayed. Fourqurean said a date hasn't yet been set.